Who Is Fair Test?

February 11, 2009 - 6:18 PM
If one were to judge by the number of times the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more commonly known as Fair Test, has been quoted in reference to test-optional college admissions policies, one might conclude that this organization is the nation's preeminent authority on the issue.  Seeing a quotation from one of the group's staff in publications ranging from USA Today to the Chronicle of Higher Education is nearly as predictable as the nostrum about death and taxes.
If one were to judge by the number of times the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more commonly known as Fair Test, has been quoted in reference to test-optional college admissions policies, one might conclude that this organization is the nation’s preeminent authority on the issue.  Seeing a quotation from one of the group’s staff in publications ranging from USA Today to the Chronicle of Higher Education is nearly as predictable as the nostrum about death and taxes. 
 
College admissions professionals also pay homage to Fair Test.  The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) encouraged its members to consider Fair Test suggestions like “‘examin[ing] whether first-year grade point average is too narrow a criteria for evaluating the utility of standardized admission tests,” when its commission on standardized testing issued its report on the matter last fall. 
 
The issue of college admissions has significant academic and economic importance.  One presumes citations on such matters would be reserved for learned individuals and organizations with considered and scholarly perspectives bolstered by data and rigorous analysis.  But a closer inspection of Fair Test’s staff credentials and finances raises significant questions about the organization’s bona fides and legitimacy.
 
When asked about funding sources for Fair Test, the group’s public education director, Robert Schaeffer, acknowledges support from the Ford Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and the Rockefeller Family Fund. 
 
But curiously absent from Schaeffer’s recitation of financial backers is George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire who has bankrolled such notorious projects as MoveOn.org and a plethora of other left-wing causes and politicians. Grant records from Soros’ New York City-based Open Society Institute reveal that Fair Test has received $165,000 from Soros’ Institute since 2004. 
 
Fair Test also lists among its sponsors the Woods Fund of Chicago, which includes among its board membership William Ayers, the domestic terrorist who, as a member of the radical Weather Underground, played a role in the bombing of New York City police headquarters in 1970; the bombing of the U.S. Capitol in 1971; and the 1972 bombing of the Pentagon. 
 
The grant records and other proceedings of the Woods Fund have remained elusive since the disclosure in 2008 of Ayers’ dealings with President Barack Obama during their time together on the fund’s board.  To this day, the extent of support for Fair Test from Ayers or the Woods Fund remains unknown.
 
As for Schaeffer himself, his role with Fair Test is not entirely clear. Schaeffer is often referred to as Fair Test’s “public education director,” and he is the group’s most frequent spokesperson.  But tax records, corporate documents and other materials paint a more muddled picture.  As recently as September 2008, the left-leaning Ploughshares Fund listed Schaeffer as president of Public Policy Communications, a Sanibel, Florida-based public relations firm. 
 
Schaeffer’s firm describes itself as a provider of “strategic communications for progressive causes, candidates, and socially-responsible businesses” yet lists no expertise in matters related to higher education or college admissions policy.  Schaeffer’s clients of late include International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Families Against Incinerator Risk and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
 
Fair Test’s recent tax returns make the situation somewhat murkier. The group’s 2006 Internal Revenue Service Form 990, which must be filed by all non-profit 501 (c) (3) organizations, lists Schaeffer as the organization’s treasurer, working 21 hours per week and receiving $60,000 in compensation. 
 
This remuneration for half-time work represents more than half of the $111,496 in direct public support noted in Fair Test’s Form 990 that year.  Oddly, their 2006 tax return, the most recent available, was signed February 8, 2008 by Betty P. Rauch, who signed the tax form as “treasurer” but is noted elsewhere in the tax form as one of the group’s unpaid officers.
 
Also curious is the fact that Schaeffer’s address, as listed on Fair Test’s 2006 tax return, is the same as that of his Florida public relations firm, suggesting his services are related to his PR practice.  However, the Form 990 section requiring information on the compensation of the five highest paid independent contractors for professional services in excess of $50,000 reads “None” for 2006. 
 
Further convoluting Schaeffer’s status are Fair Test’s 2004 and 2005 tax returns.  In both cases, he is the signatory on the group’s Form 990 and lists himself as treasurer, filing both returns late and signing them within a 12-day time frame in March 2006.
 
No less questionable are the scholarly credentials of Fair Test’s top officers.  Schaeffer claims no expertise in higher education, education research, testing or training. He has written some papers on related topics but none are peer reviewed, and most have been published by Fair Test.  One such paper, “Test Scores Do Not Equal Merit,” was reviewed by college admissions offices, and Schaeffer says he was given “input” by them. 
 
Schaeffer lists himself as co-author of a 1989 book, “Standing Up to the SAT,” published by ARCO/Simon & Schuster (with a foreword by Eleanor Smeal and afterword by Ralph Nader). Schaeffer also lists himself as author of a 1996 article entitled “Standardized Tests and Teacher Competence,” which he says was published in a “teacher newspaper in New York City.” 
 
As for classroom experience, Schaeffer says his background includes teaching “organizational management” at Antioch Community College. This sum of knowledge prompts Schaeffer to claim that he and his colleagues are “practical experts,” in the field of college admissions.
 
Among those colleagues is Fair Test’s Executive Director Jesse Mermell, the former director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus.  Mermell, who assumed her post in January 2008, was honored that year as one of two “Champions for Choice,” by NARAL, Pro-Choice Massachusetts.
 
 According to the NARAL Web site, Mermell “is an activist in the Massachusetts Democratic Party,” who received the Michael S. Dukakis Award for service to the party in 2002.   
 
Elected to the Board of Selectmen in Brookline, Massachusetts – the youngest person ever chosen for the office – Mermell is also a board member of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts Advocacy Fund and of Citizens for Public Schools. She also chaired the Youth Services Committee of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and was political director of Massachusetts Democratic Future.
 
With an organizational pedigree as heavy in left-wing political activism as it is light in scholarly acumen, Fair Test is undoubtedly pleased to have the endorsement of NACAC as a mark of credibility. At the same time, NACAC is not shy in citing Fair Test pronouncements in support of its conclusions, including those incorporated in NACAC’s 2008 commission on admissions testing report.
 
The incestuous nature between a blatantly political organization like Fair Test – which is funded in part by radical foundations – and a professional organization for admissions practitioners is disturbing. Either NACAC shares Fair Test’s political agenda or is negligent in ascertaining the credentials of experts they cite in reports. The same can also be said of media organizations that routinely quote Fair Test officials.
 
Such ties between a political group advocating the end of standardized testing and an academic professional organization overseeing college admissions are troubling. The relationship between those entrusted with making college admissions fair and those with a larger political goal merits investigation particularly in light of the conclusions of education researcher Jonathan Epstein, who has studied the impact of test-optional policies in college admissions.
 
Writing in May 2008 for the education consultancy Maguire Associates, Epstein reveals that test-optional policies at colleges and universities lead to artificially inflated average SAT scores among incoming freshmen, which, Epstein warns “may completely disorient prospective students and families.” Epstein concludes that such disorientation in the market, which is fueled in large part by Fair Test political activists, “is not in the best interest of any institution or higher education in general.” 
 
This risk alone provides sufficient reason for media and academic organizations to reassess their reliance on Fair Test and other political organizations for meaningful input in the college admissions debate. Whether they will take this course of action remains to be seen.